London mayor looks to boost the ranks of Black men in tech

Mayor Sadiq Khan's workforce initiative will help businesses identify and remove the barriers that stop young Black men from entering — and getting ahead — in London’s tech sector.

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The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has unveiled a new initiative to tackle the underrepresentation of Black men in London’s tech sector.

The eight tech firms that will take part in the programme include Dell Technologies; Informa Tech; Cloudreach; Ford Motor Company; Profusion; Cognizant; Panasee; and Telent Technology Services.

The move, announced last week, forms part of the mayor’s latest Workforce Integration Programme, which aims to increase the number of young Black men in the capital’s key industries. Rather than focusing on what individuals can do to improve job prospects, the programme brings together businesses from different sectors to critique existing practices and explore the causes of underrepresentation in their workforces and the sector as a whole.

A report by the Greater London Authority in 2020, "Voices of the Underrepresented," found that while young Black men make up 18% of London’s population, they  comprise only 5% of the capital’s technology workforce. The sector is estimated to be worth £56 billion to the economy.

The need to bolster the number of Black men in the tech workforce is underscored by the fact that those aged 16-24 are among the most likely to be out of work; almost one in three are unemployed (compared to just 15% of young white men).

Dean Forbes Dean Forbes

Forterro Group CEO Dean Forbes.

Dean Forbes, the CEO of Forterro Group, through his foundation, Forbes Family Group,  provides investment and development support to young people and entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds. He argues that institutional challenges such as access to education, life experiences, and opportunities continue to make it harder for  people from some socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic groups to succeed.

“Those barriers existed 20 years ago, and they still exist today,” Forbes said. “And in some respects, they're worse today than they were back then. I think young Black men walking into opportunities today have a greater climb to overcome some negative stereotypes than I would have done when I was walking into interviews [20 years ago], especially in London."

Businesses that become involved with the programme get support for a 12-month period to build an action plan to recruit, retain, and advance more young Black men in their organisations. Particular focus will be on issues around recruitment, supply chains, workplace culture, data, and progression.

The Equal Group, in partnership with City Hall, will also offer a series of workshops, one-to-one sessions, data collection, supply chain assessments, introductions to suppliers, and networking opportunities.

Addressing the root causes

Explaining the new initiative, Khan said: “It’s simply not right that young, talented and ambitious young Black Londoners are not being given the opportunity to prosper in the capital’s thriving tech sector.

“We have already successfully supported 20 large businesses in the construction and infrastructure sectors, representing a combined workforce of over 100,000, to remove barriers holding young Black Londoners back, and I’m pleased that we are now building on this work with more action.”

He added that the impact of the ongoing pandemic has reinforced the need for the Workforce Integration Network and his determination to ensure no Londoner is left behind in the city’s post-pandemic recovery.

“Someone’s life chances should never be limited by their family’s background or the colour of their skin,” Khan said. "This new initiative will give tech and digital businesses better insight into the role they can play to address inequalities, improve diversity and create industry-wide change."

Forbes believes the new scheme is well intended and should do good for some young Black men. But it doesn’t go far enough in tackling some of the root causes that have led to the lack of representation in the tech industry, he said.

The programme is designed to help Black men who have already got to a certain point in life — studied a relevant degree and are now looking to start their career in technology — but doesn’t help young men who are struggling to get to that point in the first place.

He said many young Black men don’t realise they could have a career in the tech sector because they don’t have exposure to the industry while they’re still in full-time education. Forbes also said more needs to be done to raise awareness that having a degree or studying computer science is not the only way to get a job in tech.

“The root cause of these issues is probably a few tiers below [what Khan’s initiative tackles]," he said. "It's about addressing the lack of access to opportunities for people in certain socio-economic groups. This doesn't quite do that. It provides a place and a programme for people a bit further up the chain, but I think this issue is best addressed at grassroots level, at age 14 to 18, where young men from those cohorts start to make life decisions and build relationships that form the next chapter of their lives.”

Even so, Forbes acknowledged that there is now more widespread recognition of the issues in play and the realisation from companies that they need to try harder and do better.

“One of the nice things about tech is innovation is inherent in our DNA,” he said. “As a result, we have a greater appreciation for diversity of thought aids innovation. That’s a strand of DNA that you'll find in most tech companies, that we like to challenge thinking and the way things are done.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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